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  • Makoto Shibuya

Facing Surprise

This image should look familiar. Yet something about it feels strange, uncomfortable, and perhaps even wrong. It may even take a second to realize why.



The universe knows no up nor down, no cardinal directions. So, what if we rotated it? How would that affect our perspective?


Our perspective of the world makes up our reality, and that can be unique to each of us. When our beliefs are challenged, we tend to get defensive. If an idea doesn't align with our reality, we often dismiss it as "wrong."


You may wonder how a triangle can possibly be mistaken for a circle.

Well, it could depend on our vantage point. The object may look like a triangle from some vantage points, while it would look like a circle from others. Objectively, it is shaped like a cone. Neither observation is wrong; it is just a matter of perspective. Our disagreements can often come down to a difference in perspective.

Then, how could a circle or triangle be mistaken for a square?

Again, it may depend on our vantage point. Say the cone is contained in a box. From the outside, the object would appear as a box. Alternatively, from inside the box, all we see is the cone. The box could be metaphysical or exponentially larger than the cone, and we may not even realize it exists.

The box in this example could represent a map, culture, religion, idea, or language—any lens through which we view the world and extract meaning. The same experience may vary in meaning depending on the lens through which it is viewed.



Maps


Maps are invaluable for navigating the world. Physical maps are tangible, while metaphysical maps, like culture, are intangible and elusive.


For example, when I slurp my delicious noodles in Japan, it shows appreciation and respect. However, slurping in many Western cultures is considered to be rude. The same experience has two meanings depending on whether I am inside or outside the "box." While this can be brushed off as an innocent misunderstanding, other situations are more nuanced, consequential, and complex.


Time


The box can also be a metaphor for time. The same object, environment, or idea can carry different meanings thanks to the patina of time.


Consider the following examples:

  • The same bottle of wine has a different meaning after it has aged for a decade.

  • The same place may be perceived differently before and after certain events occur.

  • The same poker hand will have a different meaning each time the round of cards is dealt.

  • The same book can have a different meaning when reading it later in life.

  • The exact words can have different meanings as the society that uses them evolves.

  • The same brand can carry different meanings as their messaging changes.


That is why New York City may have a different meaning after September 11th, 2001, and some social media posts don't age well. Differences in our perspective, especially generational ones, can stem from changes in time.


Knowledge


The box can also represent a threshold of information that causes you to see something different. Depending on the information available, the same person, in the exact location, at a precise time, can perceive the same object or experience differently.


Consider the following examples:

  • With knowledge of how to build a fire, a log can look like heat.

  • With knowledge of a specific set of rules, an activity can look like a sport.

  • With knowledge of an ulterior motive, a seeming act of kindness is exposed.

  • With the knowledge of an intoxicated driver, a moving car becomes a danger.

  • With knowledge of a language, sounds turn into speech.


What we experience can depend on the information we have available to us. Depending on our information, we can derive very different meanings from the same shared experience. This phenomenon is evident in movies with a twist ending where specific information is intentionally withheld from the audience until the end. The same story can have a surprisingly different meaning once specific knowledge is revealed.

We will all inevitably see things differently as we continue democratizing our access to information. Historically, our views about the world were very similar to those around us as we were exposed to similar experiences. Today, with the ability to travel anywhere and access the world's information at our fingertips, we may have more information in common with someone in a different hemisphere than our next-door neighbor. Furthermore, we likely consume different information than family members living under the same roof.


These differences in perspective are the source of many disagreements. Increasingly complex decisions we collectively face will likely only exacerbate them. Acknowledging our blind spots can help mediate this tension by giving us better insight into the source of our disagreements. We can learn to tolerate our differences without the need to accept them.

Given the right environment—an environment where our ideas, as disagreeable as may be, can compete so we don't have to resort to violence—our differences are not something to resolve or overcome. Our differences help round out our perspective. They expose our collective blind spots. Our differences make us stronger and more resilient. Our differences are a feature, not a bug.


Experience


The holidays can be a time to celebrate what one is grateful for or a reminder of what is amiss. It depends on the context.


Viewing experiences from multiple viewpoints was a natural consequence of growing up in a multicultural environment—the array of cultures around me perpetually tested and reframed my perspective at a young age. I learned to pay close attention when an idea or belief felt "wrong" to me. As Adam Robinson effectively puts it:


"What surprise tells you is that your model of the world is incorrect." —Adam Robinson

Corroborating the information we encounter through personal experience is crucial, but not all experience is universally shared. When shared experience does exist, it offers valuable common ground for understanding where we diverge. If my experience doesn't add up, it is a sign that I am missing a "box."


Beauty is vulnerable to the same asymmetry in experience. What we deem beautiful can depend on our vantage point, the information available to us, or the experiences we have been through.


“The quality that we call beauty...must always grow from the realities of life.” —Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Art


Literacy in different domains can inform how we see the world. Art is an accessible way to traverse environments and ideas. Art can make us see the world differently, often creating space for new possibilities. With a new idea, what was once inconceivable becomes obvious. A single idea can quite literally change our world.


"Art should confort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."—Cesar A. Cruz

Art can often alter our thoughts, challenge our beliefs, and activate our emotions. This realization challenged me to create something that would surprise all of us. I wanted to design something that would evoke a sense of "that can't be right" while remaining provocative enough to question our bias.


Artwork by Makoto Shibuya

We are all used to seeing our environment mapped in a particular orientation. What if we grew up with a map of our solar system rotated 90 degrees? Nothing has changed except our frame of reference, but how would this perspective affect us?


  • Would this influence our thinking? Our behavior? Our beliefs?

  • Would we have drawn different borders?

  • Would we have fought different wars?

  • Would this have empowered the global south?

  • If two people grew up with two different maps? How would it affect their relationship?

  • If two nations grew up with two different maps? How would it affect their relationship?


These are, of course, rhetorical questions I found myself asking. The reality is we all grow up with different maps. Maps are a mere frame of reference, and every map has its tradeoff. To quote Alfred Korzybski, "The map is not the territory."

The next time we think, "That can't be right," it could be a matter of perspective and a sign to pay closer attention, engage in conversation, or extend a dose of empathy.

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